This is one topic I’ve been dying to write about because it revolves around one of the biggest pitfalls of building a home in Costa Rica.
Any project can be separated into two clearly defined stages: design and construction. In some countries, like Germany, these two stages might even be divided into seven or nine stages, depending on the approach and building regulations. Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, there are three main stages: design, construction documentation, and construction. For brevity’s sake, I will refer to design and construction documentation as “the Design Stage” and construction as “the Construction Stage.”
The complications begin when the client alone or in accomplice with the chosen professional assigns an architect or a builder. The biggest pitfall of hiring an architect or a builder in Costa Rica is contracting them for the wrong role. Many architects and builders claim they can handle both the design stage and the construction stage when they actually lack the expertise. I will explain below why it’s important to avoid this catastrophe.
The Design Stage
The design stage is one of the most underestimated, undervalued processes in Costa Rica; some companies even give away ready-to-build designs and construction sets for free (that gives me the creeps!). Entering a construction process is a bit like going whitewater rafting: once you hop in the raft and start paddling into the first rapid, there is no turning back.
In that sense, the design phase is the only chance you’ll have to plan what and how you are going to approach the construction process. The design phase is where all the planning happens, and the architect projects the object to be built. Everything in this stage will ultimately conduct to creating a detailed set of instructions to be followed on what and how to build it. And I would like to put emphasis on “the how”: how to build the project is the most crucial part of the design stage. You may have some fancy, photorealistic images of the project, but if “the how” is still blurry, then all you have is a pretty image of something that is not ready to expand upon.
The Construction Stage
Unlike the manufacturing process of a product that moves along the assembly line in the beautifully controlled environment of a factory, the product of construction remains in place and the chaos of production revolves around it. This creates a lot of room for error; therefore, it is understandable that people assume that whatever goes wrong in this stage is because this stage was poorly executed. No wonder why so many people put emphasis on finding a good builder when in reality, the whole process was flawed from the very beginning. Many times, the client, the builder, and the architect do not realize this project was doomed from the very beginning, and this is when the client realizes they hired the wrong architect.
The gap is what I’ve come to define throughout my years of professional experience as the lack of definition by either the architect or the builder to meet its counterpart in their field of expertise. The extremes of the gap are, on one side, an architect with zero builder experience, and on the other hand, a builder who tries to design. You may think that a builder is the best suited to understand how to build, so you’ll say, “Let’s have the builder do the design stage as well.” You thought right about the builder being able to deeply understand “the how,” but there’s a consequential conclusion of hiring the builder to oversee the design stage. Not everything that seems logical is correct.
An architect, or a true “design and build” firm, is always the right option for the first stage. Builders shouldn’t design and architects shouldn’t build for two main reasons; to begin with, they lack the expertise in the other’s field, and second, a huge conflict of interest exists. The idea of using separate parties for each process is to have one police the other in order to confirm that everything is built up to spec according to the construction documents. There is even a complete methodology designed to control the process and approve the builder’s payments, which can never take place if one party is responsible for the two stages.
Closing the gap
First, you should hire an architect for the design stage who is a great designer with a proven record of completed projects that he or she inspected. Your architect should be familiar with the common local construction practices and systems, the place, the work culture, the weather, and accurate budget estimates from early on in the design stage.
Then, you should invite a potential builder to bid for the second stage. This should create a healthy competitive process. While your builder doesn’t need to be knowledgeable in the design stage, they should be incredibly well-acquainted with the nuances of executing the construction stage based on the deliverables produced in the design stage.
The construction industry is very competitive. Materials and labor are the same for all of us. There are only three worldwide trends that can make a builder substantially more competitive in terms of prices: off-site manufacturing and robotics, fully implemented BIM methodologies throughout all the stages of the process, and modern construction programming practices. Anybody who says otherwise is just bluffing, period. The classic one I hear all the time is, “You can get volume-discount prices at the local hardware store and save money.”
I advise against comparing construction quotes on the first stage of design. Wait until you finished that stage and then invite several select builders to bid based on the documents elaborated on the first stage. Comparing prices (per sqm or any kind) given by a builder before you have a finished design is a big mistake, or as we say in Costa Rica, “Don’t compare melons with pumpkins.” Besides, they all charge virtually the same; if you see big differences in their quotes, they are probably quoting different things because no official set of construction documents can be quoted from.
And finally, some companies claim they do everything, they are called Design & Build companies. (I’m one of them, by the way). In our next blog I will be focusing on them. For more information on designing and building a home in Costa Rica, book a virtual meeting for a free consultation here.
About the Author
My name is Diego Méndez Arce, and I am a passionate, detail-oriented Costa Rican architect with over ten years of experience in the industry. I studied at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica and The Technische Universität München in Germany. I founded Arkamos Architecture Costa Rica, a company that designs and builds homes. My team and I believe that good design feeds the human soul and has the power to improve people’s lives. We approach design and construction with a highly traceable and precise methodology to confirm that uniquely crafted residential projects are predictable in terms of scope, quality, time, and budget. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with those who are foreign to our real estate market. You can check out our blogs with different topics about design and construction in Costa Rica and its architecture here. If you have questions about how to approach the process of designing and building a house in Costa Rica, you may email me or book a virtual meeting for a free consultation here.